The PROTOTYPE festival in New York City has quickly emerged as a rite of the New Year. Founded in 2013 by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, PROTOTYPE is dedicated to performing and workshopping new works of opera and musical theatre. Previous years have proved adventurous and innovative, and this year’s line-up was no different, featuring premieres of operas by composers Donnacha Dennehy, Du Yun, and others.
The 2016 festival also included a staging of Dog Days, the acclaimed opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek. Dog Days, which was adapted from the short story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, focuses on the life of a family in a war-torn country over the course of nine months. Told primarily from the point-of-view of 13-year-old Lisa, portrayed by Lauren Worsham, we watch as her and her family’s lives slowly fall apart. One day, a man in a dog suit arrives outside the family’s home and tests their compassion and, ultimately, their humanity.
Little’s score, performed by his ensemble Newspeak sits at the crossroad of rock and opera. For Dog Days, Little writes arias that are clearly inspired by the operatic tradition (such as Lisa’s aria “Mirror, Mirror”) alongside electric guitars, electronics, and popular song forms. This intersection of rock and opera can also be felt in the singing styles of the singers themselves, from the more operatic technique of James Bobick to the Broadway style of Michael Marcotte. While the music provides an engaging listening experience, it is the music during the Epilogue that is the most impactful. As the audience is transfixed by atrocities on stage, a subaudible rumble slowly grows in volume, tone, and intensity until its presence is so overbearing you feel as if you’re going to be sick. The most static and simple moment in the score is the one that proves to be most powerful, and the one that does best to convey the action on stage. The ending of Dog Days eclipses all that came before it.
Vavrek’s libretto is as equally well-constructed as Little’s score. Particularly interesting is the characterization of the family members. The family is a caricature of itself: the mother, portrayed by Marnie Breckenridge, fulfills her role as a housewife, cleaning and cooking the meals; the father, portrayed by James Bobick, hunts for food in an attempt to fill the role of the provider; and the two teenage sons, portrayed by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits, sit in a basement, unwashed, smoking pot, and arguing with their parents whenever they are forced to join the family for dinner. Throughout the opera, the characters desperately attempt to uphold their sense of normalcy amidst suffering and isolation. Despite thirst and starvation, beds must be made, parents must be disobeyed by teenagers, and grace must be said before family dinners made from army rations. As normalcy breaks down and the caricature unravels, so too does the family’s grasp on humanity.
Despite excellent character development and a thrilling story, Vavrek’s libretto lacks subtlety that lessens the impact potential of the opera. The key themes of the opera do not reveal themselves through the action on stage; rather, they are explicitly stated by the characters. If we can infer the loss of one’s humanity through the actions of the character, do they need to explicitly say it? Perhaps the lack of subtlety fits the operatic medium, but it is possible the opera could resonate more if the characters’ actions spoke louder than their words.
In addition to the score and the libretto, the staging of Dog Days was enthralling. The video projections were perhaps the most impressive element. Several times during the opera, an aerial view of the stage was projected on a screen above the characters, giving the audience multiple perspectives of the action as well as serving as the point-of-view of a helicopter flying above the family’s home. However, the most unique use of video was during Lisa’s aria “Mirror, Mirror.” During the scene, Lisa walks around the stage singing into her mirror as a close-up of her face is projected above her in real time. An already intimate moment is made exponentially greater as Lisa seems to speak to the audience directly through her mirror.
PROTOTYPE’s production of Dog Days was captivating and powerful. A wonderful score and well-written libretto have established this work as one of the most important operas that the 21st century has produced thus far. PROTOTYPE has no doubt played an important a role in supporting the opera and broadening its reach. With this year’s festival over, one can only look forward with anticipation to next year’s lineup, which is sure to uphold the level of artistry and storytelling PROTOTYPE has established in years past.